Age verification: the view from our Policy Council

This week we published a white paper from Innovate Identity about online age verification systems (read more).

Age verification is an increasingly important topic both for the dot-xxx sponsored community and the broader Internet eco-system. The paper reviewed recent efforts in the UK and Germany to extend real-world age checks for access to particular content and services (adult content and online gambling) to the online world.

In order to bring in more perspectives, we provided our Policy Council with an advance copy of the paper and asked them for their thoughts and feedback. This is a summary of that feedback which we hope will help move the conversation forward.


The paper itself

The Council was agreed that the paper provides interesting, useful and well-presented information about ongoing age verification efforts online.

The fact that two very different approaches have been taken in countries that are geographically so close (although culturally different) demonstrates "how complex the issue is, turning on so many specific factors," said Nadine Strossen, our free expression advocate on the Council.

The paper serves as an "instructive analysis" and a useful contribution to policy discussions, although it also highlights that a uniform, global solution to checking someone's age is likely to be a difficult prospect.


Relevance to the online adult entertainment industry

The paper argues that it is in the interests of the adult content industry to look at a self-regulatory approach and develop its own age verification systems before it faces the prospect of imposed legislation.

The Council agrees that if such legislation were forthcoming that a self-regulatory approach would be the best solution. However, since the approach taken by the UK and German governments would most likely not transfer to the United States, the level of urgency or necessity in Europe highlighted by the paper may also not carry across.

Differences in the online gambling and adult content industries were highlighted in order to demonstrate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to age verification. For example, adult content is often provided at little or no cost, whereas online gambling is exclusively concerned with money transfer. People may also be more willing to provide personal information for access to gambling services than adult content services.

That said, the Council can see clear benefits to an industry-wide approach. "I would like to see IFFOR support and encourage standardized age verification," explained Chad Belville, one of the adult industry representatives on the Council. A set of best practices developed across the industry would help to demonstrate to legislators that the issue was being taken seriously and so does not require new laws.

The Council highlighted problems with the systems introduced in the both the UK and Germany. German citizen and adult industry representative on the Council, Florian Sitta is well acquainted with the system his government has set up and noted that concerns are being raised in the country itself about the security of the electronic ID card which is designed to simplify user-focused verification systems. The amount and type of data that will be stored on the "electronic passports" is also the subject of some debate.

With respect to the UK, the Council was broadly concerned at the approach being taken, namely government pressure on businesses to introduce content filtering. Filtering at the ISP level brings with it the risk of real or inadvertent censorship, and has been shown in the past to be ineffective.

The increasingly widespread use of proxies and virtual private networks would bypass such an approach and heavy-handed efforts to make content providers solve the issue may simply cause businesses to move outside the country rather than work with authorities to address their concerns.


Relevance to the United States

The Council was agreed that while there were some useful lessons to be learned from the UK and German experiences, the cultural differences between both countries and the United States means that a different model would have to be adopted on the other side of the Atlantic.

The US Supreme Court, for example, has repeatedly stressed that even if the government were justified in barring minors’ access to certain online material, it may not do so in ways that limit adult access to that material, or even make it more burdensome. As such any age verification system in the US would have to be simple to use and user friendly (something that the paper highlights remains a concern in the UK).

There have also been some difficulties in introducing age verification systems for two previous US laws: the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) and the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Federal regulation covering age-verified access to online content is not expected any time soon.

"This paper amplifies for me the substantial divide (legal, cultural and economic) that is growing between the EU and the US on policies and best practices for age verification," noted adult industry representative Andy Kayton.

Complex discussions about how to bridge different privacy regimes across the Atlantic have been going on for some time and recently have been complicated by revelations about the activities of the US' National Security Agency (NSA) in gathering information sent over the Internet.


Looking forward

The paper provides significant food for thought, and highlights several areas that would be good for further research.

The Council agrees with the paper's authors that further review into how age verification systems could be developed to respect privacy, the right to anonymity and freedom of choice is needed and would be helpful in developing future systems.

The survey that was carried out in the perspectives of those who have and have not introduced age verification systems was very interesting and generated a number of interesting hypotheses and follow-up questions, raising the possibility that an in-depth and authoritative review of attitudes could act as a significant contribution to policy-makers. 

A survey of users' experiences with age verification would also be useful in developing future systems.


IFFOR grants program

IFFOR sponsored Innovate Identity's white paper through our annual grants program. The program was created to encourage dynamic projects and harness the Internet's spirit of innovation in order to promote the IFFOR Policy Goals.

The hope with each of our grants is to contribute useful ideas and information of direct relevance to the dot-xxx sponsored community and, we hope, the broader Internet eco-system. This paper was no exception.